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Redistricting Reform Can Give Voters a Real Choice

By Brent Laurenz

RALEIGH - There has been a lot of talk about reform early this year at the N.C. General Assembly. Whether it’s education reform, tax reform or unemployment-insurance reform, the Republican leadership, emboldened by now working with a Republican governor, is hoping to overhaul the way state government functions. One more item needs to be added to that list – redistricting reform.

Reforming our current redistricting process is the single most impactful legislative decision the General Assembly could make this year. Passing redistricting reform is not only a common-sense, good-government decision, but it’s also one that gives power back to the voters, where it belongs.

For too long, both parties have used redistricting to shore up their own majority and weaken opportunities for their opponents. In many cases, this robs voters of any real choice come Election Day. And while it may be a cliche by now, the current system truly does lead to a situation where politicians choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their politicians. But when political power is at stake, it’s just too tempting to use legislative control to craft new district lines to benefit one party over the other, which is why we need to take that power away from the General Assembly and hand it over to an independent body.

In 2011 we saw the North Carolina House vote to do just that, and by an overwhelmingly bipartisan margin. Unfortunately, the Senate never took it up. Hopefully this year will be different.

The core of any redistricting reform effort should be to establish clear criteria for how district lines can be drawn. Ideally, those criteria include rules that don’t allow for the use of party registration, political performance data, voting history, past election results or incumbent addresses when creating new legislative districts. Once clear guidelines are established, it should then be up to an independent, nonpartisan body to draw new maps. There is simply too great a conflict of interest to have lawmakers responsible for drawing the very districts they represent.

In the end, redistricting reform aims to create fairer, more competitive districts that provide voters with real choices on Election Day. Looking at last year’s congressional elections in North Carolina, only three of the 13 districts had a margin of victory of less than 10 percent, and two of those were six- and eight-percent margins. So you could argue there was really only one competitive district at the congressional level in 2012. In fact, the average margin of victory for all districts was an astounding 23 percent.

Very similar results were found in the North Carolina House and Senate, though some of those districts were so safe for one party that many did not even have two candidates on the ballot in November. That has a real negative impact not just on voter participation, but also on civic participation as well. How likely are you to engage your neighbor in discussion, volunteer your time or donate your money if the result is a foregone conclusion?

Whatever the arguments in favor, redistricting reform is ultimately an insurance policy for both parties since nobody knows who will be in charge after the 2020 elections when it’s time to redraw the lines again. Just ask the Democrats. They drew the maps after the 2000 census only to be crushed by the Republicans in the 2010 elections. The opposite could happen in 2020. Either way, it’s time to put voters first and pass redistricting reform this year.

Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.